When I first introduced creative writing as an activity in the care home I worked in, my aim was simply to add a bit of variety to the timetable, provide an activity that was fun and free, and introduce something I felt passionate about and enjoyed myself, to see if anyone else felt the same.
However, I soon realised – from reading up on the subject, attending courses and the results of my own sessions – that there were also lots of emotional, mental and physical benefits of creative writing for older people and people with dementia, which was why I decided to set up my company Write Here Write Now, to try and help improve the wellbeing and happiness of older people in Liverpool through creative writing sessions.
Here are some of the benefits of creative writing for older people and people with dementia …
1. Creative writing provides an outlet for self-expression for those who may struggle to communicate or be listened to.
Many older people, especially those with dementia, can struggle to express themselves – often struggling to find the words or losing their chain of thought, or believing people aren’t interested in what they want to say.
Sadly, many older people also have few people who will really listen to them, either because they simply don’t have many people around them or because those who are around them are short on time so don’t have the time or patience to sit and listen, or struggle to understand what they are trying to say.
By encouraging older people during creative writing sessions to think about things in a new way, use their imagination (rather than memory) and talk freely – and also repeating back the words and ideas that are expressed – older people can find a new way to express themselves and also feel that what they say has been heard, validated and appreciated.
2. It provides a new role and sense of purpose.
Getting older generally leads to a great deal of loss, including the loss of many of the roles people have had during their lives, such as daughter/son, friend, neighbour, employee, boss, homemaker, earner, etc. Consequently, many older people – particularly those who have moved into care homes where they might have most things done for them – can feel as though their lives have lost purpose and value. Older people may also feel they have lost many of the abilities and talents they had when they were younger, which can leave them frustrated.
By encouraging older people to create something new – which they and others can enjoy and admire – you are helping them to experience a sense of achievement and accomplishment and to take on a new life role; that of poet, writer or storyteller.
Research also suggests that the imagination and creativity of older adults can flourish in later life, so by allowing them to use this creativity you can take the focus away from what they have lost and can’t do, and put it firmly on their strengths, what they have gained and what they can still achieve.
3. It helps to improve mental wellbeing.
An evidence review commissioned by the Baring Foundation in 2011 showed that participating in arts activities increased confidence and self-esteem in older adults, helped to counterbalance low mood and anxiety after loss, and improved cognitive functioning, communication, self-esteem, enjoyment of life, memory and creative thinking for older people.
According to Mental Health and Older People: A Guide for Primary Care Practitioners, research has also shown that taking parts in arts activities can help to reduce the risk of depression in older people, which means happier older adults and less need for medication.
4. It helps to strengthen social bonds.
Group creative writing sessions or writing groups can help to build social bonds between care home residents or members of the group by allowing them to communicate, collaborate and have fun together.
Furthermore, creative writing sessions can aid communication between older people and their family members, by giving them an activity they can join in together if they wish, providing them with more to talk about during visits, and/or helping family members to understand their relative more by reading their writing.
According to the Baring Foundation, storytelling sessions can also improve the relationships between older people in care homes and the staff who are working with them by helping to “reveal new aspects of the life of a resident and hence help staff relate better to them.”
Strengthening social bonds is important, as not only has research shown that more socially active older adults experience less cognitive decline, but having a wider social circle can drastically improve the happiness levels of older people and improve their quality of life.
5. It helps older people to stay mentally active.
According to a study published in Neurology, keeping mentally active helps protect the brain in old age. The Alzheimer’s Society also advises people to give their brains a daily workout to help reduce their risk of dementia.
Creative writing is a great way to help older people stay mentally stimulated in a fun and pressure-free way; encouraging them to use their imagination, use observation and communication skills, and learn new skills, with the freedom of knowing there are no right or wrong answers.